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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 3

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Why "Western River" Went South -- Part 3

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OUR STORY SO FAR: Roy Disney had officially put the word out. He wanted the Imagineers to come with attractions for Walt Disney World that would blow the doors off of anything the company has built in Disneyland. Master Imagineer Marc Davis was glad to hear this, for - having just completed the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" - he was eager to build on the lessons he'd learned while working on that attraction.

What particularly delighted Marc was that he wasn't being asked to recreate "Pirates" for WDW. At the time, WED head Richard Irvine and the other Imagineers thought that - since pirates had already played such a huge part in Florida state history - an attraction featuring these rascally rogues wouldn't exactly appeal to the residents of the Sunshine State.

What Irvine was looking for was a ride just like "Pirates" that didn't have any pirates in it. Luckily, Marc remembered an attraction that the Mouse had almost built as part of an aborted waterfront Disney theme park project in St. Louis.

This "Lewis and Clark River Expedition" ride had all the elements necessary - a water-based show that took guests past scenes set in the American West - for an attraction that could potentially top Disneyland's "Pirates of Caribbean" attraction.

In fact, were this "Western River" ride done correctly, it could possibly push the Disney theme park experience to a whole new level. Now all Marc had to do was sell his idea to Roy and Dick.

Marc's sales pitch was simple: "I want this attraction to be the best thing we've ever done."

Davis explained that he hoped that "Western River Expedition" [WRE] would be the pinnacle of Disney theme park design. Everything that the Imagineers had learned in the 1950s and 1960s while building Disneyland and designing Walt Disney World would come into play with this attraction.

That meant using all the knowledge WED had acquired on guest flow and ride systems while working on "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "it's a small world." Everything the Imagineers had learned about audio animatronics while programming "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" and "The Carousel of Progress." All the secrets that the wizards at WED had learned about staging shows with humor and music on "The Enchanted Tiki Room." Plus the cutting edge special effects that the Imagineers were planning on using in Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion."

Chief among the break-throughs Davis wanted "WRE" to make was in its use of audio animatronics. Marc had personally programmed many of the AA figures featured in Disneyland's "Pirates" attraction. As a result, he was intimately aware of what sort of performances he could get out of Disney's robots, how much more these figures were capable of.

Marc wanted to use this knowledge of AA figures - along with every other every skill and discipline that Imagineering had at its disposal - to create the most ambitious theme park attraction that Walt Disney Productions had ever done. If "Pirates" was the Mouse's equivalent of the Mercury space program (When the U.S. first successfully put a man into orbit), "Western River" was Disney's Apollo program. This time, WED was shooting for the Moon.

Marc's ambitious plan initially dazzled Roy and Dick. But - being the hardened professionals that they were - they immediately tried to find the flaws in Davis's grand design.

They quickly pointed out that an attraction this large would have to be housed in an enormous show building. Any building that large would be hard to hide as well as eat up a lot of valuable real estate within WDW's Magic Kingdom.

"Not a problem," said Marc. He proposed that the giant "WRE" building not be looked on as a liability but more as a theming opportunity. What if the exterior of the show building were dressed so that it looked like one of those tabletop mountains - better known as mesas - that were found in the American southwest? Wouldn't a massive mesa make a great addition to Frontierland's skyline?

Dick then pointed out that - if the "WRE" show building were really to be built that large - the Imagineers would be forced to reroute the Walt Disney World railroad around the structure. "Not so," said Marc. Davis suggested that WDW's steam trains actually be routed *THROUGH* the building so that they could play a part of the show.

Roy was awestruck by the size of the proposed "WRE" show building. "Won't you be able to see this thing from all over the west side of the park?"

Marc tried to sell that as a virtue of the attraction. "We'll make the top of the building open to the public. Maybe throw an Indian village up there or something. People will climb up all the way to the top just to take in the view."

Dick then pointed out that - were Disney to go forward with this attraction - the company would have to cut back on other rides that they had already in the works for WDW. Chief among these was "Space Mountain," an indoor roller coaster that WED had slated for construction in Florida. Many of the Imagineers felt that WDW desperately needed a thrill ride similar to Disneyland's Matterhorn. "Space Mountain" appeared to be a nice variation on that idea.

But Marc had an answer to that too. "What if we were to incorporate a thrill ride into the 'Western River' project? Maybe have a runaway mine train that rolled across the top of the mesa as well as down along the sides of the show building?"

Roy and Dick were just staggered by the scope of Davis's proposal. The way Marc had mapped it out, "Western River" wouldn't just be a new attraction. Were Walt Disney Productions actually to build the thing according to Davis's plan, it would be like adding a whole new land to WDW's Magic Kingdom.

Roy and Dick had their doubts. But it was Marc's next statement that clinched the deal. "I just want to make a show that would have made Walt proud."

That was all that Roy wanted to hear. He immediately gave his okay for Davis to begin developing his "Western River Expedition" attraction idea.

What follows is a reconstruction of Marc Davis' overall site plans for Big Thunder Mesa, the massive show building that was to have housed "Western River Expedition." Had construction actually gone forward on this attraction, visitors would have entered this WDW expansion area by walking along the shore of the Rivers of America at the western-most edge of Frontierland.

At just about where the "Briar Patch" shop at WDW's "Splash Mountain" attraction now stands, a four story tall mesa would have risen up out of the ground. Here, guests would have had a couple of options.

If they followed the scenic trail up to the top of Big Thunder Mesa, they could visit the Pueblo Village. Here, they could explore recreations of native American dwellings or shop for crafts like Navajo blankets and jewelry. Every hour or so, they have watched Indian dance troupes perform in the center of the village. Or they could just take in the breathtaking view of the Magic Kingdom from the top of the mesa.

Were the visitors to follow the road that ran alongside the mesa next to the Rivers of America, they would have found themselves in the middle of the Big Thunder Mesa silver mining operation. Climbing the steps up to a rickety old train platform, they could have then boarded ore cars for what was supposed to be a scenic tour of the old mine.

This mine train ride would have started out peacefully enough, with a wheezy old johnny engine slowly pulling the guests through dark caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites. But - once the train got back out into the sunshine and tried to make it up a particularly steep hill - something unfortunate would happen.

At this point in the ride, the ore cars full of WDW visitors would have inexplicably become uncoupled from the johnny engine up front. Quickly rolling back downhill, the ore cars would have picked up speed and suddenly burst into a previously closed off section of the mine. This part of the ride would be the thrill portion of the attraction - as participants rode backwards through several hundred yards of dark tunnels full of quick twists and turns.

The finale of this ore car ride would have come when visitors - who had been warned earlier about the bottomless pit that lay at the heart of Big Thunder Mesa's mining operation - only escaped certain death thanks to the quick thinking of the miner who had been running the johnny engine. This crusty old character would throw an emergency brake just before the ore cars plunged into the abyss. He would then reattach the johnny engine to the ore cars and pulled the guests back to the relative safety of the ride's unload area.

(Yes, you're right. This *DOES* sound like a much more ambitious version of Disney's "Big Thunder Mountain" railway. We'll get to that part of the story eventually. Try not to get ahead of the rest of the class.)

Or people could have wandered into the mouth of a giant cave that they'd find at ground level at the center of Big Thunder Mesa. Walking under a large wooden sign that read "Western River Expedition," these visitors would have found themselves entering the queue area of the attraction, which would have been marked off by clever use of sculpted stone and split rail fencing.

Well inside the show building, people would have exited the man-made cavern - only to find themselves supposedly outdoors again just before dusk. This large interior room - which would have served as the ride's load / unload area - would be designed and lit so that it would appear to be a small canyon open to the early evening sky. Looking up toward the ceiling they would see stars peeking through the purple twilight.

Visitors would then walk across a natural land bridge that would take them over a swiftly moving river that ran through this small canyon. On the other side of the river, they would board wooden launches that would take them downstream for a twilight boat trip through the desert.

But what awaited passengers around that next bend in the river? Here, they would have encountered the attraction's narrator: Hoot Gibson, an affable old owl. Hoot would have welcomed these WDW visitors to the "Western River Expedition," then done the standard safety spiel. "You can't be too careful around here," Hoot would say, "Strange things have been known to happen in these parts." (Yeah, like owls that talk!)

The first strange thing that guests would have noticed was that their boat had begun gliding *UP* a waterfall. Hoot reappears in a tree halfway up the waterfall and talks about how the clouds in the night-time sky remind him of the old west.

Sure enough, the clouds that are projected on the ceiling do vaguely resemble cowboys, cactuses and long horn steers. Hoot goes on to say "Wouldn't it be great if there was a way we could actually get back to the old West? You know, I can almost hear those old cowpokes singing around the campfire now."

The visitors would now hear someone playing a guitar. As their boat crested the top of the waterfall, they would see an audio animatronic cowboy on horseback strumming a six-string. He would serenade riders with the opening verse of the "Western River Expedition" song, a comical country western ditty they'd hear throughout their journey through this attraction. What made this introductory scene of the ride particularly funny is - just across the river - a trio of long horn cattle would poke their heads through a split rail fence and moo along in three part harmony with the singing cowboy.

As the boat continued along, riders would pass a chuckwagon - where other AA cowboys would pick up the song's refrain. As they headed downriver, they'd also glimpse rattlesnakes, road runners, coyotes and jack rabbits who'd chirp, cheep or howl along in time with the music.

Hoot reappears in a tree alongside the river, warning the passengers to be on their guard. While the desert may seem beautiful at sunset, it can be a pretty dangerous place too. To re-enforce this image, two vultures would sit in a tree on the opposite side of the river. Below them lays the bleached bones of a dead steer. The vultures' heads turn to track the boat - and its passengers - as they head downriver.

"Watch out for banditos," Hoot says. Sure enough, around the very next bend in the river, passengers encounter a group of singing Mexican banditos as they rob a stagecoach. It's obvious that these men - who are dressed like a mariachi band - are bad guys, because they all wear kerchiefs to hide the lower halves of their faces. As a nice comic touch, even the bandits' horses wear masks.

Thankfully, the bandits are so busy separating the stagecoach's passengers from their valuables that they don't have the time to rob the boat passengers. But - as they serenade the riders as they float by - the banditos say that they hope to meet again soon.

The boat now floats under a railroad tressle bridge, where - if the visitors time it just right - the WDW Magic Kingdom steam train will rumble overhead just as they're passing underneath. (Folks on board the train will get a quick glimpse of the Mexican bandits sequence, which would give them a hint of the fun to be found inside the "Western River Expedition" ride.)

Off to the side, Hoot re-appears - warning riders that they're about to enter Dry Gulch, one of the toughest town in all the Western territories. The boat now floats right through the center of town - as a bunch of drunken cowpokes celebrate the end of their cattle drive. These guys are whooping it up all over the place.

As a rinky tink piano player pounds out a ragtime version of the "Western River Expedition" song from the porch of the "Dry Gulch Saloon," a trio of dance hall girls serenade the passers-by. Just down the street, the bank's being robbed. The WDW visitors are temporarily caught in a crossfire as their boat floats between the sheriff and the robbers, who are having a heated gun battle.

Speaking of gunplay, just a little further up the street, two steely gunfighters stand on opposite sides of the river. As the boat passes between them, these ornery characters commence a-firing.

Just at the outermost edge of town, the guest see a cowboy on horseback on top of the entrance the "Last Chance Saloon." This drunken dude happily fires his six guns in the air, as the bartender tries to shoo the man and his horse off the roof.

Across the river, a traveling salesman stands in front of his wagon - trying to sell patent medicines to some of the locals. A few native Americans from the nearby reservation can be seen in the crowd.

As the boat floats out of town, the WDW visitors can hear Indian tom-toms pounding in the distance. Hoot re-appears in a nearby tree, warning the passengers that they're about to enter "injun country." But Hoot reassures the boat's passengers the local Indians are friendly. All that drumming is because the tribe is holding its annual rain dance tonight.

Sure enough - as the boat comes around the next turn in the river - the people see that the whole tribe is dancing around a bonfire. Pounding drums, hooting and hollering, these native Americans do whatever they can to appeal to the rain gods.

Well, that rain dance *ALMOST* works. There's no rain, but thunder crashes and lightening suddenly streaks across the sky. A stray lightening bolt strikes an old dead tree in the forest that now flanks the river. That tree burst into flame. That fire then quickly spreads to several other trees in the forest.

As the WDW visitors continue down river, they now found themselves floating in the middle of a raging forest fire. Individual blazing trees along the river creak ominously and lean in toward the river, threatening to fall down right on top of the boat.

In addition to the fire, the passengers now notice that the water in the river seems to moving faster and feels considerably rougher than earlier in their journey. Hoot appears in a tree alongside the river, saying that there's a safe place up ahead where the WDW visitors can get out of the boat and escape the forest fire & rough water.

But guess who's waiting for the boat to arrive once they come around that bend in the river? That's right. The Mexican bandits. Only they're not smiling and singing anymore. Leveling their guns directly at the visitors, these banditos say that they'll be happy to help them ashore ... for a price. When, of course, people seem reluctant to hand over their belongings, the lead bandit laughs and says: "Then it's over the falls for you. Adios!"

Sure enough, right up ahead, the river ends abruptly as a waterfall. The boat teeters at the top of the falls for a moment ... then zooms down toward the rocks below.

Thankfully, everyone survives their trip down the waterfall. Their boat zips briefly back out into the sunshine at the edge of the Rivers of America, before the current from the Western River gently pushes the craft back into the massive show building. A moment later, their boat has returned to the attraction's load / unload area. These WDW visitors exit their craft. Heading out of the indoor canyon, they exit the cavern - passing the "Western River Trading Post," which would be loaded up with souvenirs to remind these guests for their musical journey through the old West.

Sounds like a lot of fun, eh?

Roy and Dick seemed to think so. Based on Marc's concept drawings, they quickly okayed the "WRE" attraction to move to the model stage. An elaborate 1 inch to 1 foot scale model of the entire interior of the attraction was built in the WED model shop in late 1969. Those who saw the massive model still say it was one of the most impressive things they'd ever seen Imagineering produce.

There was no getting around it. "Western River Expedition" was going to be the most ambitious attraction that Walt Disney Productions had ever attempted. It was going to take everything that WED had to pull this project off.

Which - in the end - is probably what lead to "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa never making it off the drawing board.

The Imagineers were already stretched to the breaking point building the rest of WDW's rides and shows. There was no way that they could take on additional project this big and still have the Magic Kingdom ready to open October 1st, 1971.

So Irvine, Disney and Davis had to make a tough decision. "Western River Expedition" *WOULD* eventually be part of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. It just wouldn't be one of the attractions found in the park on opening day.

Instead, "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa were slated to be part of WDW's "Phase One." This meant that the attraction would be built within the Florida resort's first five years of operation.

At the time, this actually seemed like a good business decision. The Magic Kingdom and the other wonders of Walt Disney World would draw visitors to the resort during its first few years of operation. Then - in 1974 - construction would begin on "Western River Expedition" and Big Thunder Mesa.

Under this schedule, Disney would have a huge new attraction to use to lure back visitors who'd already been to WDW. Best of all (provided - of course - that construction on "WRE" was completed by July 1976), Walt Disney Productions would have an all American ride to use as the centerpiece of the resort's Bicentennial celebration.

Marc was obviously disappointed that "Western River Expedition" would not be one of the attractions found at WDW's Magic Kingdom on its opening day. But he was pleased to see how heavily Disney was hyping his proposed attraction. The preview edition of the "Walt Disney World - The Vacation Kingdom of the World" booklet pointedly mentioned Thunder Mesa as something that was "Coming Soon" to Disney's Florida resort. This same booklet even featured a picture of Marc working on the "Western River Expedition" model.

All signs pointed to "Western River Expedition" as being a done deal. A killer attraction that would soon rise up along the shores of the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters: On December 20, 1971, Roy Disney died. Without Roy (who had always been the strongest supporter the "Western River" project had within the Walt Disney Productions organization. Roy always seemed tickled at the idea that he was going to oversee the construction of an attraction that would surpass anything his brother, Walt, had ever come up with), the whole future of the Walt Disney World resort suddenly seemed in doubt.

Particularly high priced projects like "Western River Expedition."